Discontent and fear brewing in Lakshadweep sharply cuts across the otherwise idyllic archipelago off the southwestern coast of India as residents have been protesting against the new regulations proposed by the administrator, Praful Khoda Patel. Patel has brought in a slew of “unilateral, anti-people” administrative changes since the beginning of his administrative term in December 2020. Ever since he took charge as the Administrator of the island, he proposed drafts of several reforms which include, the Lakshadweep Animal Preservation Regulation, Lakshadweep Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Regulation, Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation and amendments to the Lakshadweep Panchayat Staff Rules.
At the heart of these proposed regulations lies the Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation (LDAR) 2021, that was first notified on the official website of the administration. Dissent is gaining momentum in the island against the sweeping administrative reforms being imposed in the island territory under the garb of “development”.
The LDAR specifically, has layers of problems underlying it. Primarily, it has large scale repercussions in terms of upending land ownership and residents’ property rights. Additionally, not only is the adaptation of Eurocentric models of “development” a gross mismatch with the fragile ecosystem of Lakshadweep, but also, the proposal to utilise land for “public use” will further push the country many steps backward in the gender gap index. Land holding prompted through matriliny in Lakshadweep and Meghalaya, bestowed on women relative autonomy. Seizing land is then symbolic of seizing women and marginal groups off their agency.
The Draft Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation, proposes to revamp the prevailing land ownership and usage in Lakshadweep by giving arbitrary, unchecked powers to the government and its bodies to directly interfere with an islander’s right to possess and retain property. It bestows the government the authority to pick any stretch of land for “development” activities enlisted under the regulatory provisions. Once picked, the land can be used as per the mandates of the government, i.e., with no regards for the choice of the owner of the land. It will be classified as land utilised for “public purpose“.
The draft additionally refers to “development” as activities including “building, engineering, mining, quarrying or other operations in, on, over or under, land, the cutting of a hill or any portion or the making of any material change in any building or land, or in the use of any building or land, and includes sub-division of any land.”
It also adds that “a development plan shall not, either before or after it has been approved, be questioned in any manner, in any legal proceedings whatsoever”. The proposed developmental activities at such vigorous scales also threaten the fragile ecosystem of Lakshadweep’s coral islands.” This draft takes India back decades in meaningful land rights activism for the marginalised through its disenfranchisement,“ Let India Breathe, an environment communications collective, posted on its Twitter handle requesting to revoke the draft proposals.
Further, the proposed regulation also allows for a ‘plan’ which will demarcate zones that can be considered for parks, industries, residential or commercial establishments, national highways, arterial roads and so on.
Under section 72, it also gives power to the Planning and Development Authority to evict anyone who is found to occupy land under a final scheme formulated under the proposed law. “If the Planning and Development Authority is opposed or impeded in evicting such person or taking possession of the land from such person, the District Magistrate shall, at the request of the Planning and Development Authority, enforce the eviction of such person or secure delivery of possession of the land to the Planning and Development Authority,” reads the draft.
Land ownership in Lakshadweep: A rare example of thriving matriliny
The unwarranted call for “developing” a fragile ecosystem, is a threat by itself, but classifying the land for “public use” as per the whims of the government produces a ripple effect, a prominent one of which is its impact on the land holding rights of women.
In her book, Matriliny and Islam (1969), Leela Dube traces the history of matriliny in Lakshadweep, which has been seamlessly interwoven with Islam. Dube’s study on matriliny and Islam in Kalepni, Lakshwadeep, unearthed newer understandings of the kinship system in the island, which is a blend between two fundamentally incompatible systems – codified Islamic law and matriliny.
The History of matriliny in the region is linked to the history of migration of its population. Linguistic and historical evidence allude to the massive migration wave in the 9th and 10th centuries that brought people belonging to Nambudiri, Nayar, Thiyya, and Mukkuvan castes, to Lakshadweep. All these groups practiced matriliny and introduced the same to the island. Almost four centuries later, Islam gained ground in the island through Arab traders.
Lakshadweep, consequently, is characterized by a mix of principles used for descent and succession for property devolution. Descent is traced through women and their joint family household, and the descent source is called the “tharavad”. Tharavad property, referred to as “Friday property” is indivisible, and divisions are only for purposes surrounding use of property. Individual property, known as “Monday property” is governed by Islamic law.
In the 1960s, during Dube’s research, the duo-local form of residence was predominant, wherein, a woman continued to reside in her matrilineal joint family home while her husband lived in his and walked over at night for dinner and to sleep, returning in the morning to his house.
The amalgamation of a religious ideology which was distinctly patrilineal in its orientation with a system in which property devolved through women, where marriage did not result in a shift in residence nor in the wife’s dependence on her husband, and where property was held collectively and not individually, are if anything, rare in India.
Lakshadweep and Meghalaya are the best among the States and Union Territories of India at providing land rights to women, according to an index created by the Center for Land Governance. As per data, 41% land holding in Lakshadweep belongs to women, followed by Meghalaya where 34.3% land is owned by women. Similarly, as per the 2011 census, a majority of small land holdings of property in Lakshadweep belong to the Scheduled Tribes (94.8%).
To usurp land belonging to women and marginalized communities, in a country where these groups are disenfranchised and lack financial autonomy, is a calculated menace. While measures directed at providing land to landless labourers, enabling women to be financially independent and self-sustainable have shown scant promise, to upend the land holding system in Lakshadweep is to go many steps backward, ironically in the name of “development”.
Many are of the Eurocentric belief that reinforces the uni-linear doctrine of development, one with industrialization and urbanization. To wreak havoc in an indigenous, largely peaceful space, simply to “boost” tourism, is to further commercialize it and ruin alternate modes of living. Not to forget, it is damaging to the ecosystem, which in the face of the looming climate crisis, must be a major cause for concern.
Also read: What Led To The Decline Of The Matrilineal Society In Kerala?
Saving Lakshadweep: A case for ecology, democracy and land ownership of women
Owing to support extended by celebrities and popular activists, The #SaveLakshadweep campaign has garnered national attention. Many took to social media to educate the masses on the draft proposals, and the implications of the same.
On 23rd May, 2021, former Congress legislator from Kerala, V.T. Balram, in a detailed Facebook post warned that the administrator of the Union Territory is attempting to transmogrify “Lakshadweep into another Kashmir”. Echoing similar concerns, Kerala Rajya Sabha MP Elamaram Kareem wrote to President Ram Nath Kovind, requesting him to urgently call back Mr. Patel accusing the latter of destroying the traditional life and culture of the island.
The natives allege that Patel was imposing “draconian” legislation in the island in direct violation of their rights. The festering opposition to Patel’s policies gathered more voice with the notification of the Draft Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation, (LDAR), 2021. “The island community is a close-knit group with families living in close proximity. The regulation will destroy the way of life practiced by them for generations” an islander told The Hindu.
The furore that has ensued with respect to Lakshadweep is solely directed towards the threat to fragile ecosystems and democracy, but what inheres underneath is also the question of women’s autonomy, financial stability and land holding. Dube’s work on matriliny and women’s considerable autonomy in Lakshadweep is indicative of the relative liberation and socio-economic capital women have owing to kinship patterns and synchronous religious doctrines.
To snatch this land for “development” is one way of consolidating government centric hegemony. At the same time, it is also symbolic of disempowering those groups, which across the country, remain grossly marginalised.
Also read: The Khasi Community Is Matrilineal, But Not Matriarchal
Janaki, Abraham. (2017). Setting Sail for Lakshadweep: Leela Dube and the Study of Matrilineal Kinship
Featured Image Source: EuropeanCEO